Thundering rain pounding the cold cobbled streets with the deathly sound of a church bell ringing, echoing eerily in the distance. “We’ll be heavier”- Immortal words from Tony Iommi setting the bar for something unique to emerge. The first, the heaviest and the darkest rock band to come out of the industrial smog of late 1960’s Birmingham.
January 29th, 2017. The first of the last ever London dates from Ozzy Osbourne, Tony Iommi and Geezer Butler. Tommy Clufetos is completing his five year stint as stand-in Black Sabbath drummer. Due to the drama surrounding the dealings between all four original members mixed with Tony’s battle with lymphoma, it feels like melancholy tinged relief just to be standing here.
Londoners had been waiting a long time for this date, and I was determined not to let anything ruin it for me. The reviews from Download festival had been less than favourable. Despite this, I remained optimistic, patiently waiting to see them. Even the overpriced selection of booze at the O2 arena wasn’t going to spoil this. Earlier in the night, I had tried to maintain a closer position just outside of the more expensive ‘golden circle’ section, but had found myself being pushed out gradually, so in the end I settled on a spot in the middle, nearer the back.
As I hear that iconic tritone formation coming from Iommi’s guitar, I feel a sense of calm wash over me. This might seem strange to some, given the subject matter and satanic feel, but I feel at home; the soundtrack to many of the audience’s lives. Our Black Sabbath.
They are of course opening with the title track from their 1970 self-titled album Black Sabbath. The backdrop falls to reveal Geezer, Ozzy and Tony dressed all in black, marking their territory on stage. The drums are bashing and the bass is roaring steadily before the recognisable voice of Ozzy Osbourne chimes in on cue. “What is this that stands before me?”, the crowd sings along in unison before raucously cheering and applauding as Ozzy lets out a wicked laugh. His vocals are absolutely spot on tonight.
Fans of the original four piece are in for a real treat, as the setlist consists only of those golden Ozzy era tracks. I cannot explain how elated I am when I hear the chord sequence for ‘Snowblind’ (Vol.4) after the heaviness that is ‘Into The Void’ (Master Of Reality). It’s just one stellar song after another and as that thunderous intro to ‘War Pigs’ hits the arena, the crowd are ready to belt out the lyrics along with Ozzy.
The large screens behind and either side of the stage display psychedelic images fused with live feed of the magnificent guitar playing. The effect is truly magical. Every solo that Tony Iommi plays is absolutely flawless, with the audience watching him in awe. This is, after all, a man whose sonic identity has attracted hundreds of guitarists to try and capture that unique Sabbath sound. Of course, this simply cannot be done. Geezer Butler shows off his expert bass skills introducing ‘N.I.B’ and we are reminded that it is each and every original member that helped to create this entrancing music.
High energy ‘Supernaut’ (Vol.4) gets underway and I’m about to yell, “I want to reach out and touch the sky”. In a bittersweet moment, it’s taken away by the heavy opening riff of ‘Sabbath Bloody Sabbath’ (Sabbath Bloody Sabbath). Both are played as an instrumental medley, possibly giving Osbourne a little breather. Despite his absence, we are completely lapping it up, and my mind casts back to that dark and mystical video filmed under England’s cold grey skies. It really is a shame that we don’t get to hear the whole song, but it is one that was dropped from the set a while ago, maybe due to the high register of the original vocal line.
The actual instrumental ‘Rat Salad’ is next, leading on to an intense seven minute drum solo by Tommy Clufetos. With a different set of influences and surrounding circumstances, there is no way that Tommy would be able to imitate Bill’s drumming style. There is only one Bill Ward. However, Clufetos did the songs justice and proves to be a highly competent drummer. It is now the turn of Geezer Butler and Tony Iommi to have a little break.
They come back on stage as Tommy is pounding out the bass drum to the beginning of ‘Iron Man’. One of the more well known songs from Paranoid. Ozzy gets the crowd clapping along to the beat before shouting out “I am Iron Man”. Flames arise around the drum kit and are added to the screens visual effects to look like they are engulfing the fret boards of Geezer and Tony’ guitars. They are looking as cool and confident as ever.
During the gap after the song, Ozzy announces “this next song features Mr. Tony Iommi- Dirty Women”. A gritty number from Ozzy’s penultimate album Technical Ecstay, before he was famously fired in 1979. Iommi’s solo, two minutes in, is incredible and I get lost in it for a few moments just basking in the pure genius of his playing. As the drums blowout, Tony improvises his solo towards the finale of the song in a spectacular fashion.
“Ok here’s the deal,” Ozzy bellows out in that familiar Brummie accent, “We’re gonna do one more song, but if you get fucking crazy, we’ll do more, OK? A song called ‘Children Of The Grave’”. There’s no denying that things are going to actually get crazy. Geezer and Tony fill the room with that heavy-riffed intro, and everybody is jumping up and down, clapping away. As Black Sabbath continue to pummel away at us with this masterpiece, a mixture of black and purple balloons are released from the ceiling. Those classic colours from the Master Of Reality album.
This can’t be the end. Luckily the crowd start to chant “one more song, one more song”. Our prayers are answered as the band members claim the stage once again and we’re hit with that absolute iconic riff/lick intro to ‘Paranoid’. So simple, yet so blooming good. Balloons are flying everywhere; we’re not in mourning, we’re here to celebrate over 40 years of one the UK’s best rock and roll bands to ever exist. Confetti sprays out of vents from the ceiling, and for a split second I know what it must have felt like to be in one of those Crystal Maze spheres trying to catch the money that was blowing everywhere. The ultimate way to end a Black Sabbath set with this head banging groovy ’70s number.
Is this the end? Of their live shows, maybe. Of Black Sabbath, absolutely not. Their albums have stood the test of time and will be spun on records players around the world for years to come.
The band’s Ultimate Collection album is now available here.